Sometimes stress is unavoidable. It could be that the kids are fighting with each other (again!), a work colleague is annoying you, or that your boss is putting a lot of pressure on you. No matter the cause you find your body getting tense, your heart beating faster, your breaths shorter and your brain unable to function as you need it to. In that moment, you are incapable of being as productive as normal.
Why does stress occur?
Let’s take a moment to break it down so that we can understand what is going on. Stress is the body’s reaction to what is going on around you; otherwise known as the stressor or anxiety. A stressor, such as a difficult task, causes the body to feel challenged. When humans are challenged we experience a surge of adrenaline, which quickens our heart beat, reducing the amount of oxygen in our blood, and tenses our muscles. A reaction that is excellent if we are in physical danger and need to run to safety, but not so wonderful if we are trying to focus on completing a project at work, or act as a responsible parent.
So what can we do when we feel stressed?
I dislike the common advice of “count to ten.” I often hear people say that it doesn’t help or didn’t work. Usually that is because they don’t understand how it’s supposed to work. It is not the act of counting that will relieve stress or anxiety. The distraction from the stressor slows your breathing, addressing the physical response with a physical solution. We know from research that breathing techniques have an impact on our mental and physical state. So skip the counting and go straight to the breathing. As part of anxiety treatment, breathing exercises are a perfect tool for helping regulate our body’s response. Controlling your breathing helps reduce stress by bringing more oxygen into the blood and slowing down your heart rate. Once your body has relaxed, your brain will follow and you will be able to think more clearly about the problem at hand. Your Montreal psychologist and therapistmight suggest the “slowing down respiration technique” (Wilkinson, Buboltz & Young, 2002):
- Sit up straight, and breathe in deep through your nose to the count of eight. Make sure you are filling your diaphragm not your chest (your shoulders should not rise as you breathe in, your belly should fill out).
- Then blow the air out through your mouth to the count of ten.
- Repeat as many times as you need to feel better. Note that the ideal breathing rate for adults is 10-12 breaths per minute.
Tip to add more relief
Try stretching while you breathe. You can clasp your fingers and stretch your arms, palms out in front of you to help relax the tense arm and shoulder muscles. So the next time you’re stressed you know what to do: just breathe.
Wilkinson, L., Buboltz, W.C., and Young, T.R., 2002. Breathing and Techniques to Promote Client Relaxation and Tension Reduction. Journal of Clinical Activities, Assignments & Handouts in Psychotherapy Practice, 2, 1-14